Clothing and the Indian Independence Struggle



This conversation, recorded in London on May 19, 2015, addresses an important part of Emma Tarlo’s 1996 book Clothing Matters (University of Chicago Press) dedicated to a reading of the Indian independence struggle through the scope of clothing. In it, we discuss about khadi (hand-woven cotton cloth), in particular applied the Gandhi cap, that gathered the various independentist movements.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Before we address the clothing component of the Indian independence struggle, could we discuss, almost candidly, how clothing is associated with a body’s identity. Isn’t it uncanny sometimes, how clothing becomes fully incorporated into the body to the point that it defines the public body we present to society?

EMMA TARLO: Yes. It’s a curious thing because we pick clothes up and we put them on, so we’re aware that they are detachable and attachable. But at the same time, when we see a clothed body we take in the whole ensemble of the person and their clothes as if they are somehow inseparable and as if the clothes tell us who the person is. As you say, it’s almost as if they merge into one, which is why clothing is often referred to as a second skin. And of course there is no such thing as a natural body that isn’t interfered with in some way and clothing is very much part of that creation of the body as a cultural artifact. So, in a sense, when we dress we are participating in this performative collective conversation or dance whether we like it or not. People may not have a very strong desire to project a particular perspective or image but whatever their intentions, they will find their clothed performances interpreted; their identities will be read by others. I think that’s one of the things that makes clothing interesting as a vehicle for reflection.

LL: You would think the greater the choice, the more we would be judged for it, but that’s not even the case. A tremendous amount of people in the world don’t really have much choice about which clothing to associate themselves with. Even in this process, we find that the most obvious societal categories appear: the prime of class and, very often so, the prime of gender as well. So it seems like there’s no going around it: it’s very much part of the production of the norm within our societies.

ET: It is, and distinctions keep re-emerging even if they are discouraged or suppressed. Even in situations where there appear to be very few choices or when certain types of clothing are imposed, people find subtle ways of making differences apparent. You see this with school uniforms in Britain: a uniform is designed to level differences out. Still, people find ways of asserting individuality or doing something that slightly subverts the intention of the uniform.

LL: We’ll come back to schools later, but we can already see how this is all about some sort of semiotic. In Japan, for example, some students would interpret the short lengths of their uniform skirts as a sort of subversion to authority; whereas, right now in France, we see that if you happen to wear a skirt that is too long you might be actually expelled from school, based on a broad (and islamophobic) interpretation of the 2004 ban of the religious signs at school. The semiotics of clothing are very strong.

ET: Yes. You raise an interesting point about the role of clothes in maintaining societal norms: how there are degrees to which we are supposed to be covered or uncovered which vary according to time and place but which have a powerful normalizing effect. And often we don’t question these norms until we consider that they have been breeched at one end or the other. On the one hand, there are people who are accused of wearing too many clothes, as we see with all the controversies over various forms of covering popular amongst Muslims at the moment. In some cases they are even forbidden to cover heads and faces as if such excessive use of cloth is considered some sort of intolerable violation of the norms. But if we think about Gandhi, who we’ll be talking about later, he was thought to be wearing too few clothes. When he appeared in public in a langoti (loincloth) for the first time, many of his own contemporaries in India considered it shocking, indecent and barbaric. In both cases we find that certain norms have been imbibed concerning what is considered the appropriate amount of covering but we also find the norms being contested at both ends.

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Motley-clad delegates to the National Congress in Amritsar in 1919 / Courtesy of Emma Tarlo

LL: So, let’s jump right into it. In your book, Clothing Matters, you were studying the politics of clothing in India before and after Independence of 1947. It was really an evolution, culminating in the end with your own fieldwork as an anthropologist in a small village in Gujarat. So we can see how clothing politics deeply influence the colonial organization and administration of life, especially before the independence struggle really pick up. You were describing the semiotics of an entire population in India wearing Western clothing as a political statement. You also described some interesting, almost burlesque, situations where some people would need to find places to change clothing depending on the context. Can you tell us more about this embedded colonialism in the very beginning of the twentieth century in India?

ET: Interestingly the British did not encourage Indians to adopt European clothing, and often mocked them and accused them of imitation if they did. At the same time, there were so many values embedded in European clothing, in terms of notions of modernity, respectability, notions of civilization and of being educated, that some Indians became attracted to wearing them. In particular Indian men from relatively elite backgrounds who had more interaction with the British colonial administration than their wives and also more education through the European education system in India — started adopting forms of European dress not least because of all the associations that came with them. At the same time their attitude to these clothes was often fraught with ambivalence partly because by wearing them one could be accused of deserting one’s background, being considered less Indian or deserting one’s caste or religion but also because they were often quite uncomfortable to wear by comparison to less structured Indian clothing. So people sometimes developed an almost schizophrenic relationship to European dress. Coming back to the idea that clothing often becomes fused with the person, Indian men may have wanted the privileges that came with European clothing but not necessarily the intimacy of the association. Some started wearing European clothes in public, but immediately changing out of them and going back into the Indian clothes within the home. One of the ways in which people dealt with that ambivalence was by keeping a distinction between public and private, domestic and external worlds. Another way was by incorporating elements of European dress in combination with Indian garments — a practice which the British particularly despised and mercilessly mocked through the stereotype of the ‘Bengali Babu’ who was considered half educated and half Europeanized. Cartoons lampooned these figures with their hybrid apparel as if they didn’t know how to dress properly whereas one could interpret their clothing as a legitimate representation of the realities of their lives which necessarily combined and blended different cultural elements.

LL: If we now address the independence struggle itself, we can see how one of the first things that clothing allows is for a political community to count itself. You’ve written about the Gandhi cap that gathers together different actors in the struggle (Hindus, Muslims, young Bengalis, etc.). In the end, we have a head garment that can unite these people together. It’s a very simply hat, really, but, as you describe in the book, it actually emerged from complex conversations in order to make it respectful of all confessions and traditions.

ET: Yes. When I was doing that research, I was particularly delighted to come across a recitation where Gandhi discusses how he decided on the particular form of that cap. As you say, the cap was extremely simple in design but complex in symbolism. Its simplicity was part of its appeal. In Gandhi’s opinion, it had to be cheap because it had to be accessible to everybody; it had to be light so it could be carried around; it needed to have a form that didn’t alienate any particular group. This was difficult since headwear for men was one of the key markers of difference, whether caste difference or religious difference. So one of the advantages of the Gandhi cap — a very simple, white cotton cap made from hand-spun cloth — was that it was not to dissimilar in to various caps worn by Muslims but it also resembled caps worn by Hindus in Kashmir.

It was however quite different from the large turbans worn by many rural Indians which incorporated huge amounts of wrapped cloth, so it wasn’t something that all people could immediately relate to. In fact getting people to relate to it required a lot of symbolic work. But it was a possibility. What Gandhi was trying to do was build the possibility of a national symbol that might unite men and women, young and old, people of different regions and faiths. Through the cap Gandhi called people to lay aside their differences and to recognize their common interests. If everybody could wear this one, simple cap on their head, then there was a possibility of imagining unity, of imagining a nation into being.

At the same time the simplicity of the cap, its whiteness, its flimsy form and the fact that it was made from khadi (handspun, handwoven cloth) created a startling contrast with various types of European headwear. It epitomized difference and suggested a rejection of the values attached to European clothing. European clothes were much more structured and men’s clothes were often dark in colour and heavier in texture. So the Gandhi cap made difference desirable and suggested that civilization and modernity might be defined in new ways. And of course the cap was part of a whole swadeshi (home industries) campaign to promote handspun, hand-woven cloth — a campaign which had many elements to it. On the one hand, it had a political and semiotic element, evoking the power of whiteness and the power of collective non-violent action. People were encouraged to adopt khadi clothes as a form of self-purification. But there was also the economic argument which to Gandhi was equally central. Put simply, the idea was that if people could spin their own yarn and get their cloth woven locally, then they would no longer be reliant on Europe. Although cotton grew in India, most of it was being exported to Europe where it was machine-spun and sometimes also machine-woven in textile mills abroad, before being sold back to India as machine spun yarn or cloth. The fact that Indians were wearing clothes that had been manufactured in Britain and Europe using raw materials from India was a powerful symbol of economic dependence. Gandhi promoted the local production of khadi as an act of self-sufficiency and independence, encouraging people to burn clothing of foreign manufacture in symbolic bonfires. But the economics of khadi were always complex. Not everyone saw this as the right economic path for India. Some saw going back to handspinning, which had almost died out in most of India, as a backward step. So the fact that he was asking even politicians and members of Congress to sit down on the floor and spin their own yarn was quite repellant to many. Rabindranath Tagore, the renowned Bengali poet famously commented: “if man be stunted by big machines, the danger of his being stunted by small machines should not be lost sight of.”

LL: Well, that’s interesting, right? The semiotics are meeting the operative. We sometimes forget that colonialism also produces a market for colonial goods. We still see it in Palestine today. We think of it mostly from the side of the labor or, even more, from the side of the resources and raw materials, but not enough from the end of the production circuit. In this case, the fact of actually weaving locally would allow people to bypass the colonial circuits of the economy.

ET: But the problem was, of course, that the machine-spun yarn was very cheap and rapid to produce while hand-spinning is a very long-winded process. The actual economics of that were always difficult, as is the case with a lot of hand production.

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Members of the Aam Aadmi Party wearing the Gandhi cap (photo by AAPPilibhit, 2014)

LL: Something we could add about this hat is that it has been brought back by the Aam Aadmi Party, an alternative to the BJP and the Congress Party in India. They have been using the Gandhi cap as a reminder of the independence movement, haven’t they?

ET: Yes, and I think that is very interesting because Gandhi always promoted it as non-elitist, as something that anybody could wear. It’s true also of khadi more generally that it retained a sense of being the appropriate garment of resistance, even after independence when it was much less in evidence. People involved in human rights and various social movements as well as artists who do politically critical work will often wear khadi cloth. Similarly, as you say, new political movements have taken up the Gandhi cap. Some people in the Aam Aadmi Movement were protesting in the streets wearing caps which said, “I am Gandhi.” In a sense, the cap has retained the associations of the freedom struggle and also the possibility of reliving or reigniting the excitement of mass protests of the past. But it’s interesting. Between then and now the cap didn’t disappear, but it went out of fashion and was associated mainly with a few old Gandhian men. So what we’ve seen recently is how things from the past can be recuperated and re- dramatized. And Gandhi was a master of drama as we saw from how he chose to publicly enact his beliefs and ideas through his own body. By stripping away what he called the “tinsel splendors of Western civilization,” he led the way for others to do the same. That process of peeling off the material layers of Westernization — the veneer as it were — was very powerful. But Gandhi was not a silent actor; he was also a wordsmith. His collected works run to 100 volumes! He was constantly making speeches about his clothing choices. And I think that’s really important. He recognized that although clothes communicate, their meaning is often ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. People think they can read identities but there is always potential for misunderstanding. Gandhi was constantly trying to rail against this ambiguity by defining what he meant by his clothing choices, whether through letters, speeches or written declarations. It was really an onslaught of symbolic work, both through his bodily enactments and through his words. So khadi and the Gandhi cap left an indelible imprint on the national psyche. And they remain today as a resource that can be re-charged and as an inspiration to social movements both in India and elsewhere. The Tibetan Lhakar movement for example takes inspiration from Gandhi when it calls on Tibetans to dress and eat in particular ways in protest against Chinese occupation.

Transcript by Amrit Trewn (2015) / Find the rest of this conversation online in “Politics of Head Garments: Gandhi Caps and Hijabs.”